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Home » Religion

Through the Eyes of Researcher:Buying Offerings  

by on Wednesday, 16 January 2008No Comment | 743 views

Here is an interesting piece of writing on the growing trend of buying offerings for religious ceremony which is taken from Scott A Johnsen’s thesis which is entitled From Royal House to Nation: The Construction of Hinduism and Balinese Ethnicity In Indonesia.

Many Balinese now regularly purchase offerings, from small offerings for use in the houseyard to all the offerings needed for a life-cycle or temple anniversary ritual. On a positive reading, one often hears that this is more efisien than making all offerings oneself. On a negative reading, it is now common to hear the complaint that Balinese too often purchase their offerings, instead of making them themselves. For example, an offering specialist in Tabanan regency laments this change, commenting in Bali Aga magazine:

Now it is not like in the past, when making offerings for [rituals – lists offerings for marriages, mortuary rituals, etc.] was done with others as a duty (ngayah). There did not used to be people buying offerings as is done today, everything were done oneself. I learned from my grandmother. Now, since it is normal to buy them, no one makes offerings every evening if a relative is having a ritual.

In Bangli, I also encountered clear sentiments along these lines. For example, at a shadow puppet performance by one of my sources, a character urged women to make their own offerings: “Young women should study to make canang [kind of common offering], so they don’t always have to buy them. Studying this is proper for women.” A woman from the city of Bangli who worked in the capital, Denpasar, told me that the feeling of solidarity is much greater in Bangli. In her ward in Denpasar they buy the offerings and spend two days at most preparing for temple anniversaries (as opposed to one or two weeks in Bangli). A village official in Bangli told me that the use of purchased offerings lessens the feeling of mutual assistance (gotong royong) that derives from collective preparations for a ritual. In Sanur (highly touristed area in South Bali), an older woman told me that there did not used to be any people selling offerings, but now if there is a cremation on short notice (ngaben mendadak) usually most of the offerings are purchased. I heard from sources in Denpasar and in Bangli that people in Denpasar are more likely than many other Balinese to buy offerings. One source said this was because people in Denpasar are “a bit modern”, while another said that they are becoming more individualistic and do not have as much time as people elsewhere. In less urban areas, purchasing offerings can have connotations of failure: it is evidence that one could not mobilize sufficient labor.

It is clear that purchasing offerings has increased in the last couple decades, with my sources and a religious magazine indicating that the practice became popular in the 1980s. It is slightly more complicated to figure out what was usual before this. Ottino, doing research in Tabanan regency, was told that offerings cannot be purchased because they must be made for specific rituals only (Ottino 2000:134). On the other hand, Bateson and Mead’s classic book Balinese Character mentions “the little stands where ready-made offerings to the market gods are sold” (Bateson and Mead 1942:3), indicating that for some simple types of offerings the practice has existed for quite some time. An article in the Bali Post translates a line from the sacred text Yadnya Prakerti as “one may not purchase offerings” (tan wenang anuka banten). Nonetheless, my sources did not categorize all practices in which one pays for offerings as “buying” offerings, as in the following account:

A friend of mine in Tembuku (district of Bangli) makes offerings when he does a
cremation with his ward, but he buys them for a post-cremation (peroras). Only in the
last ten years is it usual to buy offerings. Fifteen years ago people more often went to
offering specialists. A Brahmana priest has assistants who make offerings, this is different from just buying. (…) In times past, offering specialists were from Brahmana houses (Griya), it was a monopoly by Brahmana, but now anyone can make offerings. You just study from a book and get an initiation ritual (pawintenan) so that you have permission.

In this account, which fits with the statements of other sources, paying the House of one’s Brahmana priest (pedanda) to make offerings is not “just buying.” This goes back to the discussion earlier of the difference between gift relations and purely monetary relations: since one has an ongoing relationship with one’s priest, the payment that the priest receives for preparing offerings is not purely economic; the money will often be tucked into an offering, just as one pays for other ritual services. Buying, on the other hand, can be done from anyone who has set themselves up as an offering specialist (see MacRae 1997:87 for a description of one such entrepreneur). Since priests often do this (in the city of Bangli, the family of a priest from a local House temple often took orders for offerings), the line between “buying” and having a more gift-like relationship is not always clear-cut. Buying small offerings from the local market, on the other hand, is very clear-cut: this is a purely economic transaction, one can buy lunch and a few canang offerings with the same bill.

When the ward in which I lived was chosen by the local government to make the offerings for the regency’s Great Purification ritual, the city simply paid the ward. Most of the members of this ward had a relationship with a particular Brahmana priest (a Pedanda istri, or female high priest), and this priest regularly came to the temple in which preparations were done in order to supervise the making of some of the higher-level, elaborate offerings. The high priest did not actually make the offerings, she merely made sure they were assembled correctly.

Thus, there have long been practices in which Balinese have sought the services of others in the making of offerings. The difference today is that Brahmana priests have less of a role in such assistance, and some Balinese are using the services of others much more frequently than in the past. By expanding these practices and directing them increasingly away from relationships with priests, there have been several significant consequences, especially in the capital, Denpasar: people spend less labor-time making offerings, which also means they spend less time with others in their wards preparing for temple anniversaries (a point corresponding to the quotation above in which a woman laments the loss of “solidarity”); the fact that some Balinese women may no longer have the offering-making skills that previous generations had has led to many government-sponsored events and contests in which people learn about and compete to make offerings in order to “preserve Balinese culture”; and the commodification of offerings has contributed to reformist arguments that big rituals are just big expenditures of money.
This last point relates most closely to the arguments about hierarchy and ritual levels of this chapter. As mentioned above, one reformist argument against high-level rituals portrays them as a waste of money that could better be spent on education, etc. I have noted that many Balinese reject this idea because they do not think of rituals as something from which one can transfer resources to other domains. Balinese keep exacting records of monetary and material contributions to rituals, but this does not mean that they think rituals can be equated with money. In the dominant practices of the past, many aspects of rituals were never conceived only in terms of money: one contributed a certain number of coconuts, rice, or other material goods, as well as one’s own labor. One performed ngayah, ritual service for the temple and its gods, which necessarily involved a material and/or monetary dimension. Even today, some Balinese insist that ngayah should not involve money.

Many people in Bangli knew only a few English phrases, but one of the commonest was “Time is money” (waktu adalah uang). People treated this idea as something in-between strange foreign concept and an obvious truth: time is money, as you say. It came up when people told me how much labor they put into ritual preparations, without this appearing in the monetary account of ritual expenditures. The point is subtle but significant: Balinese have long known that labor can generate money, and that labor for rituals is a contribution alongside materials and money, yet the literal equation of ritual labor and money is something new. Instead of ritual service, ritual labor can now be conceived as just money in another form. The rise in popularity of purchasing offerings has accomplished a similar transformation in the understanding of offerings, since one can buy the services and offerings of others. This evokes Marx’s famous attempts to understand the strange relation between money and goods in capitalism: “The capitalist knows that all commodities [as offerings and labor in Bali are coming to be understood]…are in faith and in truth money…”. As the material and labor dimensions of rituals have become increasingly monetized, it has become easier for reformists to argue that big rituals are just big expenditures of money. This then allows one to make other, related arguments. One very reform-minded noble man told me that if rituals can make you pure (suci), then money equals purity. This argument uses the equation of rituals with money to argue against caste hierarchy, conceived as an order in which only the rich can have large rituals. One might even want to agree that there is a certain truth to this observation: Wiener has noted that in the past (and often today), high castes (who were often, though not always, wealthier than others) tended to receive more and larger life-cycle rituals (Wiener 1995:59), which contributed to their perceived spiritual power.
There are all sorts of issues to complicate this, such as the fact that caste status and wealth did not always coincide, but I think the point has some validity. One must note, however, that this hierarchy was not conceived primarily in terms of differences of wealth; “wealth” for rituals concerned one’s personal network of ritual labor as much as it did monetary or material wealth, and there were people in Bangli during my fieldwork who had such networks because of their spiritual/artistic talents (at making special masks, etc.), not because of monetary wealth.

Without reiterating the tremendous complexities of Balinese hierarchies, the crucial point here is that the equation of rituals with money potentially transforms local understandings of rituals and hierarchy by enabling reformist criticisms that would not have been possible in terms of earlier cultural models.

Another line of reasoning that uses the equation of rituals and money to argue against hierarchy states that “evil people can do great rituals (karya agung), if they have enough materials and money.” In this view, not only can a high-level ritual be understood as just a pile of money, but also potentially as the act of an evil person. Instead of a great gift to the gods that may bring spiritual benefits to many people, large rituals here become possible smokescreens to disguise the immoral behavior of those who have them.

These arguments were not dominant in Bangli, where huge rituals conducted by those ex-royal Houses that could still afford them received general respect, even if royalty were often seen as on the way out. Furthermore, as with many of the other reformist arguments above, these ideas were not usually applied to rituals at important regional and village temples. The double standard discussed above, in which kinship rituals receive the brunt of reformist attack while one finds a conspicuous absence of such arguments in relation to important non-kinship temple rituals, also applies to these arguments equating rituals and money.

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